Fiction: THE ENGLISH BOY

Kamarudeen Mustapha

- Kamarudeen Mustapha


They say your father christened you Clement. You were obviously a blessing to him when you were born. Now people called you Kilementi. Some were always so much in hurry when they called your name, so you were Kilemen to them.  And you answered to the two names, and believed they were the very correct versions of your name, because you didn’t know a word of English.

You were an English boy, though you were also half Yoruba, but you were more English than Yoruba because your father was supposed to be English. And here we believe the father has a greater claim to a child.  Not only this, you were milky white, especially on Sundays after you were washed, and had rubbed coconut oil into your skin. And your often short cut, cropped hair was oily and shiny. Your eyes were blue and your nose very pointed. We don’t have our noses like nibs of pen here. The white genes seemed to be more dominant in you. You were white but couldn't speak any white language. You spoke only Yoruba, and it was even the very local one at that. Not the sophisticated one, western civilization toned, they speak at Lagos and other coastal Yoruba towns. You lived in Eletu, far sunken in the forest of Osun State.

Snow white – that was what you were. A great contrast to Iya Agba, your grandma, whom you often trailed after on your way to Saint Michael Anglican Church on Sundays, the only days of the week you bathed, for people said you hated taking baths. You liked to wear your grimes and slime all over your white skin like an outer skin. They said you didn't like your white skin very white. I was aghast, I hated my black skin too, and I could have traded my skin for yours for any amount if I had the means. 

The first time I saw you Kilementi flying kite on the field of the village primary school, I was astounded at your sight. I had not expected anybody like you in the little sleepy village. I was posted there as a teacher just two days before. While other teachers had gone straight home after the closing hours, I had decided to stay behind and write my lesson plans. I hated writing lesson plans too, but for a teacher in public employment, writing lesson plans could not be excused.

Your milky white skin was not very white that day. It was not a Sunday but a Wednesday, your last bath was four days ago. So, your skin was daubed in grime and dust. When I saw you, I little expected an English boy could be so dirty and uncivilized. I thought you must be a Nigerien Tuareg, who are common sights in Nigerian cities where they beg for alms or try to sell themselves to some gullible miracle seeking goons as marabouts. But a boy who was standing near me told me you were an Oyinbo boy. He said your father was from Ingilandi, but added that you couldn’t speak a word of English. He said you didn't know even "wan pa o" meaning: come let me kill you - in English. He also said you hated learning English, and that you often refused to go to school simply because you would be made to speak the language. I wanted to laugh, I wanted my whole being to roar, to bend double and give vent to my emotions.

It sounded very funny: An English boy who couldn’t speak the English language. And everybody’s ambition was to know English. I was eager to hear you speak, so I called you.

“Hey you! hey boy!” I called at you, but you didn’t even pause to look at me. You were busy with your kite, high up in the sky. Perhaps your ambition was to hide it in the clouds. It swished here and there in the air like your unbuttoned tattered shirt below. I remembered Mtshali’s, "Boy on a swing”.

“What’s his name?” I asked my little informant.

“Kilement,” he replied.

I knew an English boy would not be Kilementi. It was the Yoruba tongue interference at play. Yoruba tongue has no patience for consonant clusters and glides. The correct name should be Clement. So I called you what I assumed should be your correct name. I had forgotten how much they said you hated English. 

“Clement! Clement!”

You briefly paused from giving thread to your kite. Perhaps you were not sure my yelling was for you or you simply chose to ignore me. You continued sending your kite to higher altitude.

The boy said, “His name is not Clement. Call him the right way”.

“The right way?" 

“Yes, Kilementi” the boy said." I shrugged and called you the wrong but the right way.

"Kilementi! Kilementi!”

Right could be wrong, and wrong could be right, everything is relative. 
You turned to me now with the type of alertness I had not noticed in you. You were really Kilimenti, and no Clement.

"Se e mo mi ni? " - Do you know me? - You asked curtly in Yoruba. No outlandish accent, no modernity induced varnishing.  Correct diction, correct gestures, and appropriate temperament. You were simply prototype Yoruba through and through, except for your skin and eyes and nose, and perhaps for your hair, cropped jet black, shiny like aloe. I was astounded. There was no Englishness or its pretension in you. You were Yoruba to the core.

“Yes! Come!”

You handed your still ascending kite to one of your play mates and ran to me. You stood in front of me, heaving expectantly. 

"Emi re e.”

“What’s your name?” I asked you 

“But you just said it now. It’s Kilimenti, abi-" you replied.
This is going to be interesting. I thought. I laughed to myself; I wanted to tease you as much as I could.

“Say it in English and in a simple sentence. Your name,” I said to you in English, smiling expectantly.
It was too much for you. Your face became an opaque wall; you merely gaped at me with some subtle hostility in your blue piecing eye. You looked so Caucasian that I thought speaking English should be automatic for you. But you were a sea without a pint of water in its expanse.

“You can’t speak English?” I asked this time in Yoruba. You nodded affirmatively.

“Goodness me! But this boy told me you had English father,” I said pointing to the smirking boy still standing by me.

Your hidden hostility sprang out like a provoked cobra. You dashed at him and threw him a punch. Before a blink of an eye, you had held his shoulders and drew him to you and quickly connected a head butt to his nose. It was so sudden. Blood started oozing out from his broken nostrils. You were a marvelous fighter, I wanted to clap for you and carry you shoulders high. 

“Stop telling people about me or I’ll kill you,” you shouted at him. Your Yoruba was even cruder in anger.

The boy fought back, not though with a punch. He was not as strong as you, he could not trade punches with you. He held your shirt close to your neck and began to shake you. You pushed him away and a large chunk of your thread bare shirt flew with him as he tottered back and landed on his buttocks. You jumped on him again, freshly angered by your disintegrating shirt. You punched him all over, your fists darting forth and back rapidly as if they were being propelled by an engine. And their punches were hard ones, well delivered.  In a second, you had pelted the poor boy black and blue, as they say, and he was red and whimpering. He had totally succumbed to your superior savagery.

I went behind you and pulled you away from the bleeding boy. You struggled to escape from my hold to punish the boy the more, but you were just a child and I was a strong young man. I drew you away and away with ease despite your resistance.

Your play mates on the field had done away with their kites and ran to us. Likewise, some elder people from surrounding houses had also assembled. They all came to appeal to you. They all seemed to like you. All questions were directed at you, not aggressively, but patronizingly. They were all your fans, they loved you, it showed. 

“Kilementi Kilode? Eebo Kilode?"  And you were still fuming, all straining to go back to the boy. “He was telling this man about me. He said my mother was a prostitute of a white man." You ranted and ranted and globes of tears were beginning to gather in your eyes. 

“Ah Kilementi. Fear God. I didn’t say that. I only said your father was English when the man said you look like Tuaregs,” The battered boy said dabbing at his bleeding nose with the sleeves of his shirt.

"It's a lie, you bastard! You called my mother a prostitute. I will still kill you as I promised. Wallahi!” You swore, touched your tongue with your index finger and raised it to the heaven in oath taking.
Some elderly people had gone to look for mint leaves which they squeezed until some juice was gotten. They dropped some of the juice into the boy's upturned nose to stop the flow of the blood.
“Kilementi, it’s not good to fight with your colleagues.” the elderly men kept appealing to you, and you kept sulking ad sulking.

One of the boys who came from the field was a cousin of the boy you had just beaten. He was not happy when he heard that the boy had not done much to warrant the type of battering you gave him. He came to you and pointed to you aggressively. “I have already known you will end up a killer one day. Even your vagabond Oyinbo father knew that before he called you killmen."

Like spring, you were on him too. You were in fact acting like the village bully and rascal people told me latter you were. But your new opponent was no push over. He was obviously older and stronger than you and he was ready to tackle you punch for punch and head-butt for head butt. But your grandma came and rained cuffs on your back and dragged you away from your opponent. She kept shouting as she led you towards her house.

“Don’t kill me Kilemen. You hear? Don’t kill me at all. Do you hear me? I didn’t kill my mother, and your mother didn’t kill me before she disappeared to God knows where. Don't kill me with your unending troubles."

And the old woman began to cry. People said she cried when anything made her remember your mother. And you cried too, and the men and women of the village shook their heads and dispersed to their various houses. They said you cried because you loved the old woman, and you couldn’t bear seeing her in tears, though they say you often made her cry.

You didn't offer any protest now, you only followed her.

Later that day, I learnt your story: your mother Tunrayo was an indigene of the village. She had travelled to Lagos after her secondary education at a nearby village. They said she was beautiful. They said she was fair skinned like her own father. And Lagos is believed to be a haven for beautiful girls who knew their ways. Success oriented girls must know their ways and Tunrayo knew her ways. She was introduced to fast girls who plied only the night highway. It was while plying these nocturnal pathways that she met your father who was a British businessman.

Your father was a god she never expected could descend to worship mortals like her. When he promised to marry her, she couldn't believe she was hearing well. He pestered her to bring him to Eletu, to her people. She brought him and he followed her all about like a pet dog. She was happy and she happily showed him off:    

"Oko mi re e o....”

"This is my fiancé."

And her people were happy for her. 

“Hee!  Iyawo Eebo”

“White man's wife”

"They lived together for two years. He made her live like a queen. She gave birth to you and he called you Clement, but your father soon disappeared and nobody heard of him again.

You were barely tottering when your mother brought you to live with grandma. Since then, she had not shown up at Eletu, that was fifteen years ago. Some people said she had gone to the northern states and got married to a Hausa man. They said she didn't come back because she feared that Iya Agba, your grandmother would force her to take you away, and she wouldn't like to take you to the home of her new husband. You would definitely rock its peace.

Some people were sympathetic to her: They said she couldn't have left you behind just like that. They said after she left you with grandma, she returned to Lagos to resume her prostitution full time, she didn't know any other business. But she soon contacted AIDS which eventually killed her. 

A week after, I was able to talk to you on the field of the village primary school. 

“Clement!”

“Don’t call me Kilimen again. My name is Kilementi. That's what grandma calls me,” you replied. 

“Grandma is illiterate. She doesn't know how to say your name. Your name is English. You should learn how to say it like your people," I told you.  

“Who are my people?” you retorted. 

“You are English. Your people are English ".

There was a great pain in your eyes. You shook your head and said, “don’t call me English. The people of Eletu are my people".

“But your father is English".

“I have no father. Grandma is both my father and mother, and I only want to be like her ". There was no pain in your voice now that you spoke of grandma.

“You don't know what it means to be English," I told you. 

“What does it mean to be English?” you retorted. “English to me means to be given birth and dump, like my father did to me, like my mother did to me. They both hated me for being this white skinned. If they loved me they couldn't have dumped me. I don't want anything to remind me of them, most especially, English language, and this skin, this white skin, I wish I could peel it off. It is to me a stigma."

There were tears glinting in your eyes, and they were equally budding in my eyes too. You were truly a rejected bundle of joy. But I wished I were you for that very skin.

Setu, October 2019

1 comment :

  1. "I don't want anything to remind me of them, most especially, English language, and this skin, this white skin, I wish I could peel it off. It is to me a stigma."
    Nice story on identity . And the boy, Kilementi stole my heart.

    ReplyDelete

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